What If Hannah Baker Had Been a Slut?

The following blog post contains 13 Reasons Why spoilers.

Typically I allow hype for streaming series to die down before I divulge into them. And to say there was hype surrounding 13 Reasons Why would be a massive understatement. I honestly couldn’t open an app without some sort of review or spoiler popping up. I never read the novel, but I didn’t need to to gather how polarizing the story was. Almost everyone had something to say about the show– positive and negative. 13 Reasons Why both inspired and angered people. So, after finals, I decided to treat myself to a long-awaited binge watch to see what all the fuss was about.

Before I lay in on the specifics, I want to commend the series itself for its relevant production. Any other dialogue about teen suicide would be inappropriate outside the creative wheelhouse of Netflix. This is the first series I’ve seen in a while that presents teenage life in an at least semi-realistic manner. Due largely in part to actors that actually look like they’re in high school (imagine that!). This is a solid, diverse ensemble cast that I warmed up to as the series progressed. 13 Reasons Why established a tone that was effortless and poignant. It pushed me, the viewer, to consider the dynamism of all major characters. Which became my biggest problem with Hannah Baker.

The journey we go on with Hannah in 13 episodes is tumultuous. I must say that I only connected with the pain of her character in the last quarter of the season. I’m sure that was purposeful, as the most wrongful of wrongs were exposed at the very end. Her perspective went from seriously misunderstood to deeply haunted. Within the season, we witnessed how a young person could be mistreated so persistently that she ultimately turns to suicide. We were able how a sweet, smart Hannah Baker turned into the punching bag of her classmates. Based on nasty rumors, she was targeted as “easy” and the class slut.

While I respect Hannah’s truth, she was in fact neither of those things. A major theme in the series is slut shaming, and how falsely accusing a person sexually can affect their self esteem. In many ways the show hit the nail on the head with this theme, tactfully incorporating a few LGBT narratives. Sex and hooking up were woven into the story throughout, acknowledging these things as a part of the teen experience. But the key idea in many of the tapes was that (consensual) sex was not a part of Hannah’s descent into depression. The actions of her peers were rooted in false understandings about Hannah’s alleged promiscuity and ultimately affected her because they were lies.

The thing that holds 13 Reasons Why back from being completely realistic is Hannah’s unrelenting innocence. It was completely and utterly messed up that she was hit on, groped, lied and talked about and finally raped because her reputation gave others the sick confidence to do so– when all along Hannah had never done anything with boys. We knew she was pure behind all the vicious rumors. And this is the very reason we felt sorry for her throughout.

The thing is, media has not completely let go of the manic pixie dream-girl trope. Hannah  was the quietly pretty girl who wrote poetry and worked a quirky job. Hannah Baker was different. Clay Jenson was in love with her for the way she wasn’t like all the other girls– including the part about sex. For a show that bravely addresses slut shaming, our heroine is still distinctly virginal.

Here is where 13 Reasons Why misses the mark. Hannah became so angry with her surroundings because she constantly had to convince others she wasn’t like that. We, the viewer, latched to her despair because we knew she did not do things the things everyone said she did. Hannah Baker was not a slut.

But what if she had hooked up with Justin in the park that night? Or let things with Courtney continue in her room? Let Marcus have what he wanted? Or even cheated with Alex like Jessica had thought? Would we empathize with Hannah’s suicide the same way as before if she was, in fact, the class slut? You see, the glaring disadvantage of this series is our privilege to deem one person’s fate undeserving. Through all of her pain, Hannah remained innocent– both in conflict and sexually. And whether it was conscious or not, this was her emancipator. By releasing the tapes, her friends came to understand her truth; coming to a closing agreement Hannah was pure, innocent. She was good.

The actuality of teen depression and the social constructs that aide it are much more complex than the show lets on. I can’t invalidate Hannah Baker’s experience as the misunderstood, odd girl out. This considered, the show reinforces our sympathy for archetypal female characters. There is a clear distinction between Hannah, the good one, and her friends, who are sexual and malicious.

In my high school experience, the “easy” girls are capable of the same pain. The victim will not always wear a badge of otherness. That’s the trouble with anti-bullying campaigns nowadays– they depend on this classic narrative. Depression is capable of reaching more than the misunderstood kids.

And it’s not that 13 Reasons Why got it completely wrong. Could you imagine being Hannah Baker? Horrific. Then again, Hannah Baker doesn’t exist. Hannah Baker truly never made a mistake. The people around her put her through hell without a single wrongdoing on her part. And as heartbreaking as that is for her, we could never fully say that about ourselves. 13 Reasons Why may go ‘there’ in that they make us question the way we treat the nice weird girl, but it doesn’t make us fully consider how we treat everyone else. Would you open your heart to the girl who sleeps around the same way you would with the quiet one in the library?

Another theme the show touches on is toxic masculinity, specifically in student athlete culture. I was excited to see this discussed, especially because it held young males accountable in modern rape culture. But between the two rape victims in the show, Hannah was presented as sheer devastation while Jessica was more of a plot point. If rumors of season 2 are true, I hope Jessica is given the opportunity to share more of her experience. Because as unlikable as she was throughout the show, she is still deserving of empathy. Every woman deserves our respect and empathy– slut or not.

Watching Hannah splice her wrists open in episode 13 flipped my stomach. As gruesome and controversial as the scene was, I felt it was necessary. For someone to do something so heinous to their own body they have to be in an insufferable amount of emotional pain. And that violent scene showed us just that. The show’s takeaway was to extend help to those before they ask for it, closing with an everybody-loves-everybody kind of scene. But the unfortunate archetypes in the show limit this message to an extent. When you subscribe to the moral of this story, everybody means everybody, damn it. As much as the Hannah Bakers of the world need a friend, extend your love and support to all people. Popularity and status does not protect anyone from bullying. High school is full of liars, gossipers, jerks and yes, sluts. Whether we admit it or not, we have been one or more of these identities. And it isn’t up to us, females particularly, to work at chipping away a bad reputation. The more we accept that young women for who they are, the less they will be judged for their relationships with boys.

I know that 13 Reasons Why had every intention of making their mark in teen culture. And honestly, how could they not? The impressive acting and sturdy storytelling gave us an addictive watch. But I’m afraid we were left with a not-so 2017 type of story, where each character was given a trope that they had to live out. Would the story on each tape move us as much if she had been at fault a few times? Lied once or twice? Had sex with the boys that hurt her so badly? I doubt it. It’s important to consider Hannah’s experience as her own. While the show gave us raw emotion, it is still fiction. Reality can be even colder and more merciless. If we want to enforce an anti-bullying initiative in high schools, we have to really mean it. For more than thirteen reasons, we have to stick up for those who don’t fit the mold we expect.